The Japanese RPG never ceases to astound me. It is a nearly untouched genre, steeped firmly in tradition. It beckons players to grind for experience senselessly for hours on end with an overly simplified battle system. It entertains with the same archetypal build of protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters. The genre’s males look like women, and the women look like 12-year-old girls. The games have multiple discs, hours of cut-scenes, and a massively linear style of exploration and gameplay.
Tales of Vesperia (Xbox 360)
The beginning of Tales of Vesperia revolves around the humble beginnings of a troubled youth named Yuri Lowell, who chooses to take off on a grand adventure in search of a thief. Yuri is the typical swashbuckling type, who favors aggression and rash alternatives to the majority of the obstacles that he faces. His decisions are typically poor over the course of the game, but they are always backed up with some ingrained wisdom that he gained in his mixed past.
The story officially takes off after a bodhi blastia is stolen from the poor district in the Empire’s capital where Yuri lives. Yuri chooses to go after the thief and in the process intertwines himself with the politics of the Empire (via a noble named Estelle), and eventually a larger, greater threat to the land. As often is the case, the chase for the object takes Yuri outside the barriers of the world into conflict, strife, victory, and toil.
The main problem with the story of Vesperia is that it reeks of mediocrity. The story, while imaginative, is far too simple considering its proposed subject matter. The politics of the fractured Empire are treated very lightly and the systems that lie outside of the Empire are barely mentioned, with the exception of the Guilds. For the first 15 hours, the Guilds are only whimsically mentioned, but even when they propel themselves to the forefront of the story, it is only done so to get to the next plot point. There are no thrills in this dichotomy. Another topic of note is how wishy-washy the villains in the game are. While it is easy to appreciate the lack of a true centralized enemy initially, it becomes very stale trying to figure out whom exactly to hate. Vesperia treats it as a mystery, but if anything, it only comes across as boring. Also, the dialogue is worthless and juvenile at best. There is a point in the middle of the game where a fascinating decision is made, one that transcends the majority of conventions in the game. Yet, instead of building on that positive, almost adult momentum, the game gasps for breath and retreats into the same childish mode almost immediately thereafter. It is highly disappointing, but not altogether terrible.
The kinks in the battle system's armor appear when the player moves outside the central conflict and into the menu system. Picking out items and targeting members of the party or different enemies can be a hassle. Also, the block option in the game leaves much to be desired. While blocking an enemy’s attacks, the character can do nothing but hold up his weapon. After the enemy finishes attacking, the game quite often just restarts the onslaught. In this way, the game forces players to take their lumps in battle. After a few fights, players will realize that the block button is completely useless. One thing that really hurts the game’s battle system is the massive battles themselves. Vesperia is better suited for one-on-one fighting, but often throws three to seven monsters into each battle. That means getting hit on multiple fronts by multiple creatures in uncontrollable waves, which then translates to wasting health items and healing TP all because of how the system is weighted toward the individual rather than the group. Some Artes effect areas, but those are few and far between (and not necessarily effective) within the game. Another odd point is that the game doesn’t reveal everything about the battle system until very late into the game (about 20-ish hours) when players will learn about the second degree of an attack called “Over Limits.” In fact, it takes several hours to learn about Fatal Strikes “FS Chains,” Over Limits, and Secret Missions. It’s silly not to put all the tools for the fighting system in the player’s hands from the get-go. These aforementioned higher-level attacks directly tie into the combo system, and really serve the best purposes during a boss fight.
There are three areas that compose the rest of the gameplay. There is the basic world map, cities, and different variants of dungeons. The world map is the same thing RPG fans have had to traverse for years: dots appearing on a mini-map to indicate important places like cities and dungeons, and it’s all very straightforward. Cities and dungeons are much the same. There is very little exploration allowed in Vesperia, to the point that it is nearly maddening. Sides of buildings are blocked off with invisible walls, structures are always locked before being prompted in the story, and leaving areas is forbidden unless specific story objectives have been accomplished. There are, of course, a few scattered treasures for the lucky ones that find an unlocked door in a place where “exploration” is supposed to occur, but it is a very tightly-wound experience. For the most part, Vesperia is about watching the story unfold and fighting monsters. Neither of these things function to any spectacular degree.
Vesperia has a very iconic look and feel. The visuals are constructed to look as if the game was hand-drawn. The delicate touches on the majority of objects, places, people, and creatures are much appreciated. The palate is especially vivid, and very welcome in this day and age of Unreal Engine 3. More importantly, the visuals never impede or supersede the experience of the game. If anything, they serve to highlight the best qualities of Vesperia. Only when the game is paused is the illusion of the world broken, when jagged edges appear throughout.
Score: 6.0 (Decent. Slightly above average, maybe a little niche. But you wouldn't recommend it to everybody.)